Can Teaching Kids Emotional Intelligence Improve Schools?

Mental well-being doesn't just predict kids' futures; it seems to be changing the health of schools today.

Social and emotional learning appears to be shaping more focused and empathetic classrooms.

(Photo: Allen Dolkowski/Getty Images)

Nov 18, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Educators are expected to teach their students subjects such as math, history, and reading, but today some schools also expect teachers to help kids manage their emotions, practice empathy, and negotiate personal conflicts in a positive and productive way.

That's a lot for teachers to take on, but there may be something in it for them. Skills like these aren't just a predictor of future successes and health; high-quality "social and emotional learning" (SEL) curricula seem to be improving the very classrooms in which they're taught.

Recently, The New York Times Magazine numbered the SEL programs running today in the "tens of thousands" and the organizations that create these curricula at "several dozen." Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York is one such organization that has been teaching schools how to teach emotional intelligence since 1982. In a study funded in part by the Department of Education, schools that used Morningside's "4RS Program" (which stands for "reading, writing, respect, and resolution") saw marked decreases in classroom hyperactivity and aggression and increases in attendance and test scores.

"It's the missing piece in American education today," says Tala Manassah, deputy executive director of Morningside Center. "There was a report that showed that 45 percent of American kids are eligible for free or reduced lunch," she says. "I think that’s probably a pretty fair bellwether for the kind of stress and the kind of need that more and more kids have for coping skills, for emotional resilience, and good communication skills."

Morningside Center’s "4RS Program" and its "Resolving Conflict Creatively Program" were found to be two of the 23 most effective SEL programs in the country, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national educational institution dedicated to integrating evidence-based SEL programs in school curricula.

A recent CASEL survey found that teachers who used SEL models reported seeing an increase in their kids’ interest in learning, better cognition of concepts, and higher test scores. And a 2011 meta-analysis published in the academic journal Child Development found that of the students in the 213 SEL programs studied, academic achievement was, on average, 11 percentile points higher than it was among students who went without the instruction.

Tanya M. Odom is an education consultant and coach who’s also the coauthor of Evaluation in the Field of Education for Democracy, Human Rights and Tolerance. When she's working with schools that may be struggling with bullying, truancy, or a culture of in-class aggression, Odom uses skill sets from SEL to help teachers address those problems.

“I’m working right now with a middle school in a very under-resourced, high-gang, high-poverty area of New York City,” she says. "And a lot of the facilitators and I are focusing on students who are under-credited and overaged. We focus on teaching them how to deal with conflict, the ability to manage emotions, and decision making, and for them, that relates to attending class, cutting class, and their behavior in class."

Odom finds that bringing emotional skills to the classroom leads to more positive interaction between students, less animosity demonstrated toward authority figures, and increased attendance.

Still, the thought of introducing another piece of curriculum into an already packed school day can be daunting for educators unfamiliar with the concepts, especially those working in high-stakes testing environments. Odom explains, "Sometimes there’s a concern [among teachers] about how much time SEL might take away from testing preparation.... There’s a very real pull and tension in some places because of the focus on testing and test prep."

Tala Manassah at Morningside says she's run up against the same stumbling blocks. "Our SEL program has a distinct advantage in that regard," she says, "because the program integrates social and emotional learning skills instruction into language arts.... So teachers often fold the program into one of their weekly language arts blocks, which I think goes a long way in helping them buy in, in a practical sense."

Edutopia, the website of the George Lucas Educational Foundation that has long been an SEL advocate, makes the argument that such lessons can help students maintain their focus, allowing teachers to spend more time instructing and less time managing their kids’ distractions.

Manassah concurs. "They’re getting more time back to do the other instruction," she says.

Though experts believe more research is needed to find out which SEL curricula work best and to confirm what benefits there are and how long they last, Manassah trusts what she's seen and heard back from teachers. "They're finding that their work is more fun," she says. "They’re finding that their kids are more joyful in the classroom."

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.